Progress Through Experiment

From The Wall Street Journal:

By the end of the 19th century, physicists thought they had things pretty well figured out. Everything in the universe was made of various types of “atoms,” which they believed were the smallest possible units of matter. Newton’s laws of motion, combined with the new science of electromagnetism, could predict how these immutable atoms would behave, whether they formed the mass of a planet or the parts in an electric motor. “Now only the details were left to explore,” writes Suzie Sheehy in her absorbing scientific history, “The Matter of Everything: How Curiosity, Physics and Improbable Experiments Changed the World.

. . . .

By the 1960s, particle physics had grown from tabletop experiments to industrial-scale operations. Instead of a handful of known sub-atomic particles there would soon be more than 100. And to find the next ones, researchers needed bigger accelerators, more power, more people—and more money. Eventually, the cost of the largest particle accelerators became too much for any single country to bear.

This is where Suzie Sheehy enters the story. As a young physics student, she worked briefly at CERN, the multinational research center near Geneva, Switzerland. At the time, CERN was finishing construction of the Large Hadron Collider. The LHC is the largest particle accelerator ever built and the biggest science experiment in history, involving some 10,000 scientists and technicians and a total investment of more than $10 billion.

In 2012 Ms. Sheehy watched a live-feed as CERN project leaders made a long-awaited announcement: They had confirmed the existence of the Higgs boson, a particle predicted four decades earlier by the British physicist Peter Higgs. The discovery resolved some of the biggest quandaries in today’s Standard Model of particle physics. “The camera zoomed in on eighty-two-year-old Peter Higgs as a tear rolled down his cheek,” she recalls.

Does this mean the mysteries of physics are nearly answered? Is there anything left to discover? Ms. Sheehy argues that—despite all the discoveries of the past 125 years—our universe remains full of enigmas. Every day, she writes, physicists like her find reasons to go to their labs “looking for something that makes us go ‘hmm . . . that’s strange.’”

Link to the rest at The Wall Street Journal

1 thought on “Progress Through Experiment”

  1. Experiments are how science learns things. Any scientist who claims to never have had an experiment fail is one or more of:

    • Lying;
    • Ignoring all the data inconsistent with preconceived notions;
    • Merely replicating what has been done before (and, one might add, not particularly well).

    The machine on which you are reading this — or, if not directly on a machine, the pathway these words have taken to you — results from six distinct major failed experiments. (And I don’t mean the drafting process, peanut gallery.) It required scientists replicating those failed results and then delving into why and then building new experimental bases to test the new theories (and several of those — particularly those related to the materials from which the machines are constructed — were exponentially filled with failed experiments).

    One of the reasons that so many of us with lab backgrounds distrust, or at least maintain skepticism, about the Standard Model is that CERN (not alone among big particle-physics operations) doesn’t disclose enough failed experiments. Admittedly, some of that is self-protection from the politicians questioning the continued funding, but still…

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